Wednesday, December 7

Meet The Hackers Fighting To Customize Your Steam Client

Do you like the way your Steam client looks? It’s a question that many of us never even think to ask. But in a tech-obsessed world that lets us customize everything from your phone’s background to your colorful internet browser, it seems fair to consider.

Yet the process of customizing your Steam client is far from intuitive–in fact, if it weren’t for a few intrepid hackers and niche Discords, it would hardly exist at all in 2022. These tools require time, patience, and a bit of research to use correctly. And given Valve’s outsized presence in the PC gaming community–and how basic of a feature this is–it feels like it should be a lot easier.

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“There’s just no support for it anymore,” says Jonius7, the developer of Old Glory, a popular Steam skinning tool. “It makes you wonder what Valve thinks about all of it.”

Ostensibly, Steam has supported custom themes (or “skins”) for more than a decade now. All you have to do is download the skin and create a new folder titled “skins” in your main Steam directory. Then drop the skin’s files into it, select it under Steam’s “interface” menu, restart, and presto: You’ve got a new look.

Although this may seem simple enough, the truth is that many of the popular skins for Steam, such as Metro and Air, have been mostly broken for several years now. Specifically, they only overhaul the outer edge of the Steam client itself–though many of these skins originally replaced the entire Steam client, that functionality was removed by Valve piece-by-piece.

The days of easily modding your Steam to look the way you want are, sadly, over.

According to skinners, these problems all began when Valve overhauled the Steam client’s friends list back in 2018. Though these changes brought a raft of new features, such as a favorites section and better groupchat support, it also broke the existing skin support for social features. Skinners were horrified to see their custom friends list and chat windows reduced to the default black of the Steam client, and with no easy way to replace them.

The same thing happened when Valve released the fancy new Steam library later in 2019–it left existing skin support for the “old library” in the dust in favor of a new web-based design. Considering that your game library and social features are what most people use Steam for in the first place, this caused Steam skinners to lose interest in the platform.

“When the friends list beta came out and people saw that Valve’s existing skin support didn’t apply to the friends list, it really hurt the motivation of skin developers,” says PhantomGamers, a software developer in the space. “However, I think if Valve changed their position on skinning, there would be a lot more interest in the future.”

Today, you’ll need to download third-party plugins to impose your will on Steam’s library and friends list. PhantomGamers is the developer of SFP, the follow-up to SteamFriendsPatcher, a program that modifies your Steam install in order to customize these finicky elements. A Steam forums user named Darth figured out how to manually edit the files, but the procedure was so onerous that it inspired PhantomGamers to create a program to automate it, in order to save fellow skin-lovers time and effort. Although he admits that the first version of SteamFriendsPatcher was far from ideal–it stubbornly refused to work for some users–the developer has mostly sanded down its sharp edges. However, while SFP does its job well enough, it’s still a niche plugin at the end of the day.

“Many skin authors aren’t even aware that SFP exists as an option to skin the friends list and library,” PhantomGamers says. “Some of them don’t want to bother it with because they aren’t comfortable using a third-party program to apply the skin.”

While SFP allows you to make radical changes to your Steam client, such as making it look like its green 2004 version, many of the most popular skins are more subtle. Jonius7’s Old Glory program is a set of highly-customizable tweaks that allow users to play around with their Steam Library, such as changing default game images from portrait to landscape, pushing your friend activity boxes down the page, and displaying more game titles per column. Jonius7 says that his motivation in making Old Glory was rather straightforward.

Only real gamers are brave enough to use OG Steam.
Only real gamers are brave enough to use OG Steam.

“Honestly, I think the default layout sucks,” he explains. “I wanted to change the columns of the game page so I could see my achievements and my friends who play as the first, rather than the news. And the tweaks just grew from there. I wanted to make the library more usable for everyone, and I think I’ve succeeded in that.”

Today, the classic Steam skin Metro lives on, but its setup is a lot more complicated than in its 2018 heyday. There’s an entire multi-part guide on how to use the skin in 2022, which involves using a combination of SFP and a litany of fan-patches by well-known developers like Shiina in order to restore its original functionality. There’s also a Discord with more in-depth explanations. Some of these tweaks require a degree of CSS knowledge in order to achieve your goals, which will probably turn some users off. Speaking for myself, however, I was able to set up my own preferred OG-Steam skin and library using SFP in about a half-hour, though I did encounter a few hiccups on the way.

From a broader perspective, although it’s nice that these hackers have managed to find workarounds, it is strange that Valve has not leveraged these themes for its own purposes. For the sake of comparison, Discord allows your pick of custom themes from a decidedly unofficial applet called “BetterDiscord”–I was able to set up a variety of themes in less than 5 minutes. Given the outsized impact that Steam Workshop has had on the PC mod community, you would expect Valve to find a way to incorporate these themes into its storefront in a more natural way. As PhantomGamers points out, we’ve already seen Valve experiment with this with custom keyboards for the Steam Deck. Why not the core client?

“I would just like to say to someone at Steam, ‘you support your game modders. Why don’t you support us?’ I think all we really need is a line of communication to Valve,” Jonius7 says. “It doesn’t even have to be that big or official. Just a little communication would be nice.”

“I think Valve would only be interested in bringing back full skin functionality if they could monetize it somehow,” PhantomGamers says. “Maybe bringing out a system where creators could put their own skins up and get money for their hard work would be beneficial to everyone. Skin developers put a lot of work into the initial creation of their skins, but they also have to update the skins each time Valve changes the Steam client.”

All-in-all, although Steam skinning is a lot harder than it used to be, the bottom line is that you can customize it if you’re willing to do the work. I personally quite enjoy my OG-Steam skin, and I plan on doing whatever it takes to maintain it in the short run. However, there is no doubt that there’s a lot of room for Valve to make things easier for these theme developers, as well as possibly making some profit for themselves. As such, we can only hope that they take the time to reevaluate Steam skinning in a future update in order to make your library just that much more vibrant and fun to use.

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors.
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